Last summer, Intiman Theatre announced that Andrew Russell was leaving his post as artistic director. Today, it announced that longtime local theatre-maker Jennifer Zeyl will take the company’s artistic reins at the end of this year.
Zeyl, who has been Intiman’s artistic producer for the last three years, is an accomplished scenic designer, curator and director. Originally from Rhode Island, she arrived in Seattle from New York in September 2001 to attend graduate school at the University of Washington. Together she and classmates from UW founded Washington Ensemble Theatre and staged many memorable shows in the old Little Theatre on 19th Avenue E—among them an unforgettable production of Sarah Kane’s Crave, for which Zeyl designed a set that slowly filled with water. Among many shows she worked on with WET, she also designed and directed an adaptation of Hedda Gabler, a show that transformed the psychological thriller into a dazzling piece of physical theatre.
In the years since, Zeyl founded the civic-minded artists collective Canoe Social Club and co-curated the site-specific Lo-Fi Arts Festival at Smoke Farm in Arlington. She’s done scenic design for all of the city’s leading theatres as well as for theatres outside Seattle, including a production of Trouble in Mind at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis last year. She co-curates and directs the annual City Arts showcase Genre Bender. [Disclosure: I am her co-curator.] And she has played a central part in manifesting some of the best shows to tour out of Seattle in recent years, including Ahamefule Oluo’s Now I’m Fine and Ezra Dickinson’s Psychic Radio Star.
Zeyl and I sat down earlier this week to talk about her new gig and what she sees for the future of Intiman.
First, congratulations. How do you feel about taking the leap, stepping into this role?
I was having this conversation with my therapist the other day. She asked me the same thing. The first thing I said was that I was excited, that I was looking forward, but that I wasn’t scared. She was like, “Oh, that’s the magic place to operate from when you’re not full of fear or trepidation.” I’m just really, really excited, and we have a really exciting year planned for 2018. I really believe in the programming and in the choices and the partnerships. And we’re kind of leaning really hard into our mission, and that all feels pretty good.
How is your actual day-to-day going to change from your previous role?
The role I am in through the end of the year is artistic producer. That’s sort of a combination of production manager and an associate artistic director. I was running artistic with Andrew, and then he was also responsible for everything that now Phillip [Chavira, who started full-time as Intiman’s executive director in March] is responsible for, which is oversight of fundraising and contributed revenue and earned revenue and ticket sales and marketing and advertising. Moving into the artistic director role, I’m still going to be fully entrenched in all the production elements, at least for this next year. It’s important for me to stay in production because I have a really deep resentment to the idea that people who know how to make things need to be managed by people who don’t know how to make things. So I have the capacity to implement and now the capacity to choose what is being implemented. And I’m definitely still making my curation choices with a co-curator each season.
What do you think you’re most excited about going forward?
I’m really very excited to partner with Phillip. He has a wonderful sense of humor and a huge heart; he loves to feed people, like me. He’s really eager to learn and he has an MBA. What we have right now is a really solid base that Andrew built of emotional intelligence around why Seattle goes to what and what the different engagement points are. Now that that community has been built, Phillip is able to actually make sure that we can financially continue. It sounds like a nerdy thing to be excited about, but I love Intiman and I’ve been working at Intiman in one capacity or another for like 13, 14 years. I want to see it continue.
How do you see yourself being challenged?
The biggest challenge with this is going to be that I’m actually an introverted person, and I have a really difficult time engaging in large crowd situations and having any kind of a meaningful exchange or experience within that. I’m much better one-on-one and I also really like to spend time by myself. I’m not a spin doctor. I’m not a bullshitter. I’m not going make a bunch of things to say if I, in fact, have nothing to say [laughter], but I can lead a fucking talkback about a show that I know. I have no problem leading a talkback with 500 people in the audience because it’s about something, but I’m not your curtain-speech person.
When you got your master’s in scenic design, did you imagine that you were going to do scenic design henceforth or did you always know you would be more pan—
Pan theatrical? [laughter] Well, I did want to get proficient, really specifically in one area. I just thought that it would be really interesting to become expert at a thing and it was. It’s incredibly rewarding. I’ve always been a visual artist. I’ve always been a painter and I minored in architecture and I understand space. I understand narrative of space and part of that’s really psychological. Scenic design is the intersection of so many practices, and I would also offer that it’s the least necessary of any design element. I think it’s the most expensive and least necessary.
Because sound can tell you instantly where you are. And it means the same thing to everybody. Right? Lights can tell you instantly how you feel about where you are. And costume can tell you something about the character that’s in front of you. And you don’t really need them to be in an Elizabethan room if they’re in an Elizabethan ruff. You know what I mean? And scenic design—it’s one of the reasons I’ve pulled back on how much of it I’m doing—it’s incredibly wasteful.
Yeah. I mean, there are great, great sets and scenic designers, and they add to the telling of stories, yes, in the best-case scenarios. In reality, it’s dumpster food. There’s not a lot of second use for a lot of things, nor should there be. It really compromises design when you’re like, ”Oh, we have these three stock flats, this doorframe and a bag of day-old popcorn.” So really if you’re going for it, it’s very wasteful and you can’t store stuff really. I spend a third again as much disposing of scenery as I do building it.
Often an artistic director directs a bunch. Are you going to direct?
Yes. A little-known fact is that I have a BFA in directing. I haven’t pursued directing as my mainstay because there is much more work for scenic designers. I will direct at Intiman where it’s appropriate. There are directors in town who I have extremely high regard for and where they are more appropriate to direct something they will be directing it. Do you know what I mean? I am directing our first show [which will be announced in early November].
And are you going to continue to design for Intiman?
Will you ever direct and design at the same time?
That’s not wise.
You’ve been in this theatre community for almost 20 years. How would you characterize it?
Seattle theatre has such a long and rich history and I really enjoy hearing about and knowing, oh, On the Boards used to be ACT and the [Seattle] Rep started at the Jones Playhouse and then then they were in the Cornish Playhouse and then Intiman was in it for 25 years—all this “shuffle one to the right” stuff. I think it speaks to the scrappy nature of all of the organizations. I think all theatres have the same problems.
Intiman has been doing a lot of new musicals, which I think probably had a lot to do with Andrew being a creator of new musicals. Do you think you’ll keep doing them?
Musicals, especially new ones, are extremely expensive to make, so it’s not my go-to when I’m trying to make a budget stretch.
Given Intiman’s commitment to racial equity and anti-racist work, how do you view being a white artistic director?
It’s a bummer.
So how do you navigate that?
We do have shared leadership of all of our artistic choices [with a POC guest curator each season]. I’m currently the only full-time white employee of Intiman and I’m very, very aware of that. It’s a bummer and it’s something that I can’t change. It’s a bummer because I think being bummed about it can make me very unproductive, and that’s not good for anybody.
It’s spending a lot of time and energy to figure out how to make yourself smaller in a room and how to center their voices, and doing that imperfectly. It’s a commitment to an incredibly steep learning curve at all times. For people who are wired to take things more personally, I wouldn’t suggest that they do this. I just have a really analytical upbringing, and I can talk about ideas and concepts and institutionalized things and not have to cry about it or take up space crying about it. I think that’s kind of key.
Do you have top-level priorities that every artistic choice has to meet?
I think so. It’s really important to me that work centers voices of female-identified folks and, particularly, people of color. I’m drawn to non-binary artists and their voices as well. Our mission used to be “Intiman Theatre produces theatre that is relevant to our time and as diverse as the community in which we live.” Now it’s “theatre that wrestles with American inequity.” That’s a good metric.
So how many shows are you guys looking to produce next year?
It’s going to be three fully produced mainstage shows and then three programs that are more community-based. We’re going to open in March and close in October.
What sort of theatre is ringing your bells these days?
I thought Public Works [a production of The Odyssey at Seattle Rep in September] was the business. That is such a fucking cool program. I think the relationships that were forged around it were kind of amazing. I loved Tribes at ACT. I thought that was bonkers. I’d watch Adam Standley read the phone book, so that’s always a win. I really loved [Intiman’s September show] Dragon Lady, but you’re not supposed to say that about your own work. I mean it’s not my work, it’s [creator and performer] Sara [Porkalob’s] work.
After making theatre all these years, you’re still in love with it. What’s its particular function today?
I go back to the dexterity and the responsive nature of theatre. Historically, it’s been sort of the most immediate and responsive kind of art form. When you talk about something that’s super overproduced and the script has been stripped down of any possible conflict or meaning or whatever, and then so many hundreds of thousands of dollars are being spent on scenery, so that the people that donate the most money to your theatre are not triggered, or alarmed, or called out on any of their behaviors—that’s a problem. That’s theatre at its worst.
Theatre at its best—I’m beginning to see a pattern as an independent producer, a devised theatre-maker and a director—I think that autobiographical narrative is incredibly powerful. Talking about intersectionality and all the nuanced combination of identifiers that make one person. And how complex that is, and how unique it is, and how beautiful it is. And at a time, a political climate like we’re experiencing right now, to be able to stand in that and celebrate it and be heard and seen, I think is an act of revolution. That’s what we need right now. We really need to show up. People need to stand in their identities. That’s what actually makes America great.